Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Thank you, John Ralston Saul": The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama



At the Jaipur Literature Festival, I looked forward to hearing a program on “History Strikes Back and the End of Globalism”. It was dialogue between John Ralston Saul and Hubert Vedrine (a former French foreign minister). I hadn’t read either author, although Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is packed with my other books back in Iowa City). I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Glamorous Nomad and C joined me. We were in for a surprise. 

Saul opened the session by singling out “some guy called Francis Fukuyama” for writing one of the “stupidest books in the last 25 years”. In this book, Saul claimed, Fukuyama declared the end of history. Saul continued that Fukuyama then wrote another “stupid” book (unnamed) and yet Fukuyama still makes money. I was flabbergasted, while C and the Glamorous Nomad (who’s read Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order) simply walked out. I was shocked and puzzled. Also angry, but this bit of intellectual character assassination intrigued me enough to stay. I’d read The End of History and the Last Man about 15 years ago or so, and I’d thought it brilliant. Had I missed something?  

The good news from this is that it’s led me to re-read The End of History and the Last Man (1992; with a New Afterward, 2006). (I’d purchased a copy here in India last October because I thought it worth a re-read; perhaps a bit of intuition here). To start with the conclusion: the book is brilliant. It’s one of the best books about politics that I’ve read. It is also one of the most discussed and criticized books about politics since its publication. Saul’s low blows aren’t new or novel. Why so? I suspect because few people have read it carefully or have grasped its true significance. 

What Fukuyama wrote, shortly after the fall of Communism in 1989, was that History (may have) come to an end. (I know: China, North Korea, Viet Nam, and Cuba—these regimes survived, but Communism as a living ideology was dead, a few zombies notwithstanding.) Fukuyama, building on the work of Hegel and Hegel’s 20th century interpreter, Alexandre Kojeve, argues that liberal democracy may have answered as fully as possible the “struggle for recognition” that has driven History. By the way, there is history and then there is History. “History” with the capital “H” is not a Teutonic affectation on my part, but it’s the term for the Hegelian understanding of the fundamental pattern of change in human history. (With a small “h”, history is the story of the stuff that happens.) Hegel believed that History came to an end in 1805 at the Battle of Jena, when the ideas of the French Revolution, imposed by the military might of Napoleon, defeated the forces of reaction. 

Fukuyama’s intellectual project and linage are not familiar to most readers. Few have any direct knowledge of Hegel. Most, like me, only learned about Hegel as the precursor to Marx. I expect only a handful of persons know of Kojeve. (I didn’t.) Thus, History is a new concept to most readers, and many seemed to have confused the End of History with end of stuff happening, which isn’t what Fukuyama argued. 

But History isn’t the most important subject of the book for me. The most intriguing part comes from Fukuyama’s project of reinstating thymos into our understanding of human motivation. If you’re read Plato’s Republic (or about it), you know of Plato’s tripartite division of the soul into Reason (logos) on top (for the Philosopher-Kings) and desire (appetite) at the bottom for the masses. In the middle, he places thymos, often translated as “spiritedness” for lack of a better English equivalent. This attribute manifests in the Guardians, the warriors who protect the polis. Fukuyama notes that thymos dominates in aristocratic warrior societies. Thymos receives a new and unique treatment in the Anglo-American liberal tradition starting with Hobbes and Locke. To deal with “vainglory” or “pride” (as manifestations of thymos), these authors and their successors—including Madison and Hamilton—work to sublimate thymos under the devices of desire. Bourgeois man becomes interested only in fulfilling desires and living rationally. So the Anglo-American tradition argues and hopes. But fortunately for the U.S., Madison, Hamilton, and their peers knew that strong men will still strive, and they put in place many checks on power. In the German tradition, Hegel puts thymos front and center as a part of the “struggle for recognition” that drives the dialectic of master and slave (or lordship and bondage, if you prefer). This struggle for recognition drives History. With the French Revolution, the Christian project of equality before God now translates into equality between individuals in the social and political realm. Work becomes dignified as a replacement for the thymotic urge to prove one’s worth on the field of battle, the warrior-aristocrat ideal. 

Fukuyama also discusses whether contemporary liberal societies will see a true End of History by granting recognition to all and by channeling thymotic urges into more productive pursuits than war. Fukuyama points out that among all the factors leading to the outbreak of WWI, we shouldn’t ignore the popular expression of thymos that led millions to greet the coming of the war with glee. Many greeted the war as an outlet for pent up desires. This is an astute observation. Now, perhaps, war has become too terrible for its use as such a popular outlet for thymos. Fukuyama also explores whether the twin ideals of liberty (which fosters outlets for thymos in individuals) and equality (our urge to see each acknowledged as equals) can co-exist over a long period as often antagonistic goals. 

Fukuyama levels a sharp critique of realism in international relations, especially in its academic guise typified by Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer. Fukuyama argues that academic realism posits that nothing has changed since Thucydides and that nations are motivated only by the desire for greater power vis a vis any potential rivals. Changes (history) in the motivations of actors or the system of international relations count for nothing in the purer forms of realist theory. Fukuyama is certainly correct in his critique. Legitimacy has become a major touchstone of action in the international realm as well as in the domestic realm. 

I highly recommend this book. Fukuyama isn’t as naïve or brazen as his detractors would like to portray him. Like Thucydides and Machiavelli, Fukuyama examines the world today to gain deeper insight into the most significant issues in political thinking. 

Postscript: If you want to see and hear John Ralston Saul’s attack on Fukuyama (and Hubert Vedrine’s more measure comments, go here, starting about 3:40 minutes. My question in defense of Fukuyama and challenging Saul comes at 49:45. I didn't speak as artfully as I would have liked, but I think that I get my point across. The answer is vague. In fact, I believe I have a good deal of sympathy for Saul’s perspective, but his modis operandi in attacking Fukuyama and Huntington was disgraceful. He should—as should we all—at least accurately and honestly state our adversaries’ positions if we are to attack them in abstentia.

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